Reading Log: ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’, and Books that Could be Really Good

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Biographies aren’t a regular part of my reading rotation, but I’ve read a few. Andrew Hodges first published his exhaustive biography of “British, gay, atheist, mathematician” Alan Turing over thirty years ago, but with the recent release of the film ‘The Imitation Game’ (which was loosely based on the book and which I have not seen) there has been a lot of buzz about the work. More importantly, a very good audiobook was recorded.

I have some serious qualms with this project. It’s a very good story and it brings up some vital points, illuminating some dark corners of our recent history that are far too easy to forget. Turing was a complicated man whose eccentricities lent themselves to caricature, and many of his ideas (worked to from first principles rather than existing paradigms) are badly misunderstood by most people outside of their direct effect. Hodges has done an awe-inspiring amount of research and created as near as a complete picture -of the man, his work, and his life- as humanly possible. The author -a mathematician himself- brings a higher-framework perspective to his explanation of Alan’s work. Hodges is a both a student and a very good teacher of the discoveries in pure math and in physics that took place in the first half of the 20th century, as well as their effect on the wider world (I was pleasantly surprised to find comprehensive and insightful commentary into Wittgenstein in the second act). I don’t think anyone but a mathematician could have written this book.

The problems all lie in presentation. This book is 768 pages long; the audiobook clocks in at over thirty hours. There is no sense of pacing or movement, and there are entire sections that seem like they might be better summarized in a handful of sentences. Literary elements (like his use of ‘Through the Looking Glass’ as an extended metaphor for the political situation throughout Turing’s life) are employed to no effect -it’s as if Hodges had read books that employed these kind of figurative techniques, but missed the fact that they must communicate deeper meaning. The references are dense and obfuscatious, without any redeeming revelation. The prose is steady, but unremarkable.

Recommendation: I really don’t know. I can’t recommend the book unreservedly. If you have a long commute the audiobook might be worth your time.  I can’t even tell you to try the first 100 pages, because the entire first section of the book is awful. But damn, it has it’s redeeming qualities…


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